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Coke, like greed, is good

CITIZEN COKE
The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism
Bartow J Elmore
W W Norton & Company; 416 pages; $ 27.95

Halfway into Citizen Coke, Bartow J Elmore describes taking a treacherous journey through an Indian jungle in 2010. He was searching for a Coke bottling plant that had been shut down six years earlier after villagers claimed it had parched their wells and polluted their streams, causing skin and stomach diseases. Thirsty and tired, he stumbled upon a restaurant in a secluded village where the only safe thing to drink was … Coca-Cola. “It seemed I had become trapped in the history I had come to investigate,” he writes.

This vivid, suspenseful scene encapsulates the book’s essential argument: that for all its attempts to brand itself as an engine of economic development and a philanthropic force, Coke’s thirst for growth has turned it into a parasite on public health and the planet.

Mr Elmore, a history professor at the University of Alabama, has written “an environmental history of Coca-Cola capitalism, one that restores the connection between the Real Thing and the real ecologies that supported it”. He investigates Coke’s every ingredient and its real secret formula: “Staying out of the business of making stuff. The company consistently proved adept at tapping into technological systems that were built, financed and managed by others. It maintained a slender organizational structure compared to other similarly profitable multinationals and kept off its books the costs and risks associated with natural resource extraction and ingredient production. It was the ultimate outsourcer, long before the term ‘outsourcing’ became popular.”

Leaning heavily on outsourcing and taxpayer-funded infrastructures the world over, Coke pioneered its own brand of capitalism, with the help of slick lobbyists and marketing gurus, and created one of the most profitable businesses in the world. In 2012, Coke sold more than 1.8 billion servings a day – one for every four people on earth.

Coke was the brainchild of John Stith Pemberton, a broke, morphine-addicted pharmacist in Atlanta who advertised it as a “brain tonic”. “Just add a few squirts of carbonated water,” he instructed the salesmen hawking the syrup in 1886. A century later, those squirts have gushed into a tidal wave. Over 79 billion gallons of water are required annually to dilute Coke syrup, and an additional eight trillion gallons are needed for other aspects of production, including the manufacturing of bottles. In 2012, Coke used more water than close to a quarter of the world’s population.

What Mr Elmore does best is analyse how Coke takes advantage of global public works and government interventions to boost its place in world markets. In 1926, the company established its foreign department, a tiny but powerful cadre of lobbyists who schmoozed diplomats around the world, convincing them that importing Coke would spur local job growth, which it did: after all, bottlers needed to buy sugar and equipment locally. But, as Mr Elmore points out, these measures offered “profound benefits to the parent company, dramatically cutting down shipping costs and relieving Atlanta from buying sweeteners, always a headache considering the wild fluctuations of sugar prices”.

World War II secured Coke’s international dominance. The company negotiated government contracts to distribute Coke on the front lines, claiming the drink boosted morale. Coke may have helped create jobs, but, Mr Elmore says, “the people who really got rich from the soft drink business were families that were already the commercial captains of their communities”. These new friends “proved integral in negotiating access to foreign countries’ valuable water resources”.

Which brings us back to that parched village in southern India. After local activists petitioned the courts to shut down bottling operations in 2004, high concentrations of pesticides were found in Coke and Pepsi, and both were briefly banned. The legal battle continues, and the plant remains closed.

But plant closures are rare. Protests in the desert state of Rajasthan failed, despite studies showing Coke operations were even more of an environmental drain in dry areas with strained aquifers. Coke bottling persists in Rajasthan, Mr Elmore found, because its politicians didn’t want to risk losing their jobs. “This was the brilliance of Coca-Cola capitalism,” he writes. “By not owning its many distributors and by relying on native intermediaries in foreign nations, Coke could claim that it was a critical component of the local economy … . Once embedded in host communities, Coca-Cola became very difficult to dislodge, even in places where it caused serious environmental problems, because killing Coke meant killing jobs.”

Mr Elmore even finds evidence of Coke’s greed in the history of American recycling programmes. He recounts how Coke and the beverage lobby pushed taxpayer-funded recycling programmes in the late 1980s and 1990s, despite evidence that the old returnable-bottle systems were cheaper and caused less waste. Since then, American taxpayers have borne the brunt of the company’s disposal costs in part “because the decentralized funding structure for recycling kept the collective costs of the system hidden”.

Citizen Coke began as a dissertation, and its points are lucid and logically presented; the language is accessible, and punchy chapter endings propel the story.

But as a narrative, the structure is riddled with redundancies and leads to chronological whiplash. The morphine-addicted pioneer, for instance, dies at the beginning of the book only to keep reappearing in following chapters – without ever being fully rendered. How did that Gilded Age pharmacist become an outsourcing pioneer? How did he happen upon such an addictive sugar-delivery system “that made people feel good without overwhelming the tongue”?

And what of the unnamed “Negro cook” who supposedly managed most of Coke’s early production, in violation of Jim Crow segregation laws? That cook returns as an example of lean operating costs, having managed the syrup mixing in a single copper kettle “akin to something you might find in a charity soup kitchen”.

All the ingredients of an important work of non-fiction are here, but the recipe is off. Despite its historical sweep and important message, Citizen Coke suffers from saccharin flatness, like a twist-top soda bottle opened one too many times.


© The New York Times News Service 2014

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